The scope of survival horror has been widening over the years to the point of splitting into two distinct types of game. One type features well-trained heroes dealing with horrific abominations using advanced weaponry. This sort of game uses graphically detailed viscera and jump-scares to get the adrenaline pumping. The second style of game instead disempowers the protagonist, placing them in a terrifying situation from which they must escape. These titles are haunting and mysterious, using complex narrative or psychological stress to get under the player’s skin.
When well-executed, both strains of survival horror can provide a worthwhile experience. However, the mechanics and aesthetic of each category often conflict, which is why the gap between the two has been expanding. Some titles have tried to include bits from both types of game, but a solid marriage between the two has yet to blossom.
Early previews of The Evil Within teased the idea of this culmination of survival horror; a game that would feature solid gunplay with a psychological horror theme. The result is a game that feels like many individual working pieces jammed into a faulty machine. It’s as if Shinji Mikami had his next five game ideas written out in a development journal, but he was worried that not all of them would see the light of day. So he cherry-picked ideas from each of them to make The Evil Within.
The Evil Within seems to be torn between two story ideas. There is a grim tale of outdated medical practice and dark family secrets. A world of old villages and occult belief. On the other hand, the mind-bending romp that puts a murder spree in a mental hospital sounds good, too. That one has detectives and loose morals, unreliable narrators and high action. “Oh well, better use both,” says the writer as he hammers out the plot of The Evil Within using tropes from the entire breadth of horror movies.
The gameplay is also at odds, fluctuating between predictable shooting and frustrating stealth. Each environment contains hiding places and noisemakers to avoid conflict, but the sheer amount of enemies requires a certain level of combat before a player can proceed (often with limited ammo). Like the discordant story, the gameplay jumps back and forth between action packed shooting (Resident Evil 4) and surreal stealth survival (Silent Hill). Since the game never commits to one type of play, neither is well-executed.
Along with the bipolar shooter arenas, there are several scripted moments of trial and error. Many of the major enemies in The Evil Within are able to kill the protagonist in a single blow, but this is rarely communicated to the player. As a result, drawn out death scenes and long loading screens become a frequent punishment of unavoidable failure.
I just happened to play this bloated game during the same week I enjoyed the streamlined experience of P.T. In what we now know as the Silent Hills Playable Trailer, the minimalist environment of a single home’s hallway instills more fear than the massively disjointed dreamscape of The Evil Within. The limited gameplay options could seem sparse to some, but this potentially short game masterfully executes the singular design of tense exploration. Every step the player takes works towards a horrific conclusion, instead of tearing through hordes of gore-covered zombies as a means to pad the length of a game. If The Evil Within is a horror movie marathon filled with cheap thrills and disparate moments, then P.T. is a haunting short film that leaves a lingering unease with all who watch it.
The endorsement of P.T. over The Evil Within may seem like a matter of preference. Concerning the sort of survival horror game I tend to play, I am not surprised to find that a cerebral and narrative-heavy experience won out against a gore-filled shooter. But The Evil Within isn’t simply a different kind of game from P.T. because of its gameplay and aesthetic. It’s different because The Evil Within tries to include every survival horror trope of story and play in its content; thinking that more equals better and failing in the execution of any.